The Adversary Matthew 4:1-11

Cat Goodrich
Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
February 24, 2023

The Adversary
Matthew 4:1-11

Just over a decade ago, I spent a week working in a garden on the Isle of Mull, off the coast of Scotland in the Hebrides.  The garden was a windswept hill overlooking the sea – on an inlet of granite rocks reaching down into the water.  The place was once an old granite quarry, but it had been turned into Camas, an outdoors center for troubled teens and pilgrims making their way to Iona, a short ferry ride away.  The garden would produce most of the food needed by the camp once it got growing, but as it was early spring, everything had to be brought in from outside – by wheelbarrow pushed over a mile and a half of track laid over beautiful Scottish bog.

Teams took turns cooking meals and washing up, and we were instructed to be careful and frugal with what we made – everything needed to be eaten, nothing wasted.  It was the director’s job to bake the bread that accompanied most dinners.  Eager to be helpful, I offered to bake a no-knead loaf I’d been perfecting that year – my entre into bread.  “No-knead?” he scoffed at me.  “no way.  It won’t be as good.  Good bread takes time – you have to show it some love.  It needs attention.  You’ve got to knead it.”

I didn’t bake the bread.  I know now that even more than kneading, he was right: good bread takes time – and, some attention is a good thing.  The bread that comes from the supermarket, sliced and bagged for sandwiches is easy enough, but it’s completely different from bread baked at home.  It has more in common with a sponge, really.  It might be called wonderbread but it’s pretty far from wonderful.

Is this what Jesus is thinking when he refuses the tempter’s invitation to turn stones into bread?  That a miracle would be too easy?  Just turn the stones to bread? Jesus scoffs.  No way.  Takes the joy out of it.  Good bread takes time, you’ve got to show it some love and really knead it if you want it to be good.  You can take a shortcut to satisfy your hunger, sure – stop at McDonald’s or pick up the Wonderbread – but it won’t be very good for you.  It won’t be delicious.  It won’t be as meaningful as a meal prepared from scratch and shared around the table.

“Stones into bread?  No way,” Jesus says.  We live by the word that gathers us round the table together to eat and celebrate in good company – meals that feed our hearts while filling our bellies, meals that help us remember who and whose we are.

Here at the beginning of Lent, each year we remember this story of Jesus in the wilderness.  These forty days without food, wrestling with temptation, prepare Jesus for ministry – just as forty years in the wilderness prepared and formed the people of Israel from disparate tribes and families enslaved in Egypt into a single nation who trusted in God.  This season gives us, too, forty days to prepare.  Forty days to wrestle with what separates us from each other and from God.  Forty days through which to journey with Christ to Jerusalem, to prepare our hearts and minds for what will happen to him there.

Scripture tells us that after he is baptized by John in the Jordan, with his robes still dripping wet, the Spirit leads Christ out into the desert, where he fasts and prays.  This is a vision quest.  A ritual of purification.  A rite of passage to prepare him for the work ahead.

In his baptism, Jesus hears God claim him as a beloved son.  When the tempter shows up, he questions that identity, saying, “if you are really the son of God, prove it.” Evil tempts Jesus to use his power selfishly by turning stone to bread; to test God by throwing himself off the temple; and to forsake God altogether by seeking earthly power instead of the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

The temptations of the adversary are pernicious.  They would make Jesus settle for small power, self-serving power, power that would satisfy his own immediate needs and ego.  These temptations would make Jesus miss the bigger, selfless, all-encompassing work God was calling him to.  Jesus and his followers were meant to feed the world, not just ourselves – and he goes on to feed five thousand with just a few loaves and fishes.  His ministry was intended to confront and challenge the forces of evil in the world, not to capitulate to them.  He goes on to proclaim that the reign of God had come near in him, to cast out demons and heal brokenness wherever he found it.   And though he would not throw himself from the spire of the temple, he will eventually go willingly to his death, to reveal the truth that violence will never save us, and love always will.

I admit have a hard time with this story, because its depiction of evil personified as the tempter, the adversary, is outside of my experience of sin in the world.  Evil is real – the devil, not so much.  Plenty of people have opened my eyes to their experience of him, though.  In my last call, I shared communion and studied the Bible with women at a shelter each month.  Many of them were survivors of abuse, who wrestled with addiction, and were dealing with the consequences.  Some of them were not that different from me, people who had been dealt a bad hand.  Most of the time, our theologies were very different, but those women taught me more about the adversary than my theology classes ever did.

Living close to the line, every day felt like a battle – the intersecting forces of poverty and racism, addiction and misogyny were not only real, they were personified.  From their perspective, it was the evil doer who was hard at work, opposing them, keeping them from getting ahead.  The adversary made it so that no bus lines ran near the only apartment they could afford, so they couldn’t have a home and make it to their job, so they wouldn’t be able to see their kids again this month.

Though I’m well acquainted with the reality of evil in the world, I’ve never felt it was personally fighting against me and my well-being – but I’ve always had the privilege of housing, and stability, mental health, and employment.  For me, the experience of evil and brokenness is expansive – The way discrimination and white supremacy have been baked into our economic, health, housing, criminal justice, and education systems.  How retributive violence and war seem like a foregone conclusion instead of forgiveness and grace and reconciliation.

But Lent is an invitation to consider evil – that is, all which opposes the will of God for love, peace, and wholeness – as intensely personal as well.  All that is within us that is complicit and complacent with the world as it is, instead of committed to creating the world as we know it should be.  The parts in us that are impatient, unkind, selfish, greedy.  Those tendencies are within us.  We know they are.  And these days of Lent are a chance to reflect on those shortcomings, that inner and outer brokenness, and to recommit ourselves to being the people God would have us be, following Christ in living lives of love and justice.

This season of Lent is an opportunity to remember who we are and to whom we belong.  A chance to deepen our commitment to God by practicing our faith – not by taking shortcuts, but by feasting on the word that truly nourishes us – baking and sharing the bread of life with one another and the world.